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New York Arts in the Berkshires

Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 and L’Orfeo by BEMF at Jordan Hall

Marco Bussi (Shepherd), Aaron Sheehan (Orfeo), and Nathan Medley (Shepherd). Photos Kathy Wittman.
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Marco Bussi (Shepherd), Aaron Sheehan (Orfeo), and Nathan Medley (Shepherd). Photos Kathy Wittman.
Marco Bussi (Shepherd), Aaron Sheehan (Orfeo), and Nathan Medley (Shepherd). Photos Kathy Wittman.

Claudio Monteverdi, Vespers of 1610, Jordan Hall, June 11, 2015
Monteverdi, L’Orfeo, Jordan Hall, June 13, 2015

Boston Early Music Festival

The recent biennial weeklong Boston Early Music Festival (June 14-21) drew unusual attention for presenting full stagings of all three of Monteverdi’s surviving operas (Orfeo, The Return of Ulysses, The Coronation of Poppea) plus the Vespers of 1610. This in addition to the Festival’s usual 9 a.m. to midnight concerts of a great variety of music from the Middle Ages to Bach, featuring noted performers from all over the world. Enthusiasm ran high all week and audiences were large, especially for the Monteverdi events.

The Vespers of 1610 is a great compendium of musical approaches to celebrate the Virgin Mary and the power of God. There is much emphasis in the texts from Psalms and various poems to Mary, on the lifting up of the humble—one of whom is Mary, standing for us all (she is human like us) and also now, as she is exalted, one whom we can ask to intercede for us. In section after section of the piece Monteverdi offers ever new combinations of voices, new instrumental colors, new musical structures, a new pace and rhythm, all in the interest of coming close to Mary’s nature and her perspective, her sense of the power of God. The setting of the Magnificat at the end, Mary’s address to God from the Gospel of Luke, moves fairly quickly through twelve diverse sections, condensing and epitomizing the approach of the work as a whole. There is a feeling of flying off into space as we experience one musical gesture after another, each unpredictable, striving to intuit Mary and her contact with divinity.

BEMF, led by co-Artistic Director Steven Stubbs, gave a forthright, clear performance of the piece, using one voice to a part, no actual chorus. Rhythms were strong and incisive, everything was well articulated. The small orchestra played very well, notably Concertmaster Robert Mealy and second violin Julie Andrijeski and the cornet and Baroque trombone ensemble Dark Horse Consort, beautifully in tune, playing with subtlety and shading. I was liking the performance very well for a time, glad to feel I was hearing every note, connecting with the piece very fully. But eventually this performance’s all-out-in-the-daylight quality was not giving one enough. There was little cultivation of atmosphere or the drama of difference from one number to the next. The work did not build or take shape organically, it just accumulated.

Stubbs did achieve momentum moving through the sections of the Magnificat setting. But the climax here is the Deposuit potentes (“He hath put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble”), with its two violins ascending and playing back and forth and then two cornets doing the same. Monteverdi renders transcendence and contact with divinity as sheer beauty—Italianate melody and color (Schütz or Bach is something else again). And here the instrumentalists were fine, but there was no real cultivation of beauty in the singing. All evening the sopranos were lovely—Shannon Mercer and Teresa Wakim—and the lower voices adequate. But so much depends on the tenors in this piece, and the three here—Colin Balzer, Jason McStoots, Zachary Wilder—though engaged and articulate, did not offer sumptuous voices, and Stubbs did not seem to encourage shading on their part. The earlier Duo seraphim (“Two seraphim cried out…”), where two tenors are eventually joined by a third on mention of the Trinity, did not achieve the magic it should, nor did the solo and offstage echoing response Audi coelum (“Hear, O Heaven, my words…”). And the Deposuit potentes was finally kept earthbound by the less than rapturous sound of the tenors. The concluding Gloria and Amen can reach a Brucknerian repetitious ecstasy, but that requires a full chorus, or at least, with smaller forces like those here, a holding back earlier and an unleashing of new power at this point, which Stubbs did not manage.

***

Three years before the monumental Vespers, in 1607, Monteverdi wrote and staged the West’s first great opera, Orfeo, using the story of the famous singer/poet Orpheus, who loses his wife, Eurydice, descends to the Underworld, and manages to win her back from death, but loses her again because of disobeying the command not to look back at her as she follows him up and out into life. The story and the opera pay tribute to the power of poetry and song, and at the same time declare the inevitable suffering of the artist, and the entanglement of art, even rapturous art, with death. Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus insists that the poet works from two worlds at once, life and death, visionary transcendence and the smell of corruption. Monteverdi and librettist Alessandro Striggio present this dual existence of the artist in succinct narrative/dramatic form. At the start of the opera Orpheus is spoken of as one traditionally unhappy, and when he first appears and sings/ speaks, his music takes a somber tone, slower and with darker harmonies than the Renaissance festive music we have been hearing. He addresses his father, Apollo the sun god, source and image of his own powers. The marriage to Eurydice and her loss are only pretexts for the compounding of his tragic experience and growth as an artist.

The centerpiece of the opera is Orpheus’s long aria/arioso/recitative (no conventional term quite applies) Possente Spirito (“Powerful Spirit”) where he entreats Charon to ferry him across the River Styx to the land of the dead. Charon gives a hard reply, but is eventually lulled, enabling Orpheus to pass. This protracted scene, one of the most dramatic and intense in all of opera, is all about the artist’s drive to penetrate and incorporate death, to cross that line and thereby transform himself, to continue his inner adventure that exfoliates in song. A lover’s longing is not really the point.

BEMF’s production put the Charon scene across very well, with darkened light and a hooded Charon who, while he listened to and rejected Orpheus, continued accepting the traditional coin and ferrying properly dead souls across Styx. Bass-baritone Matthew Brook made for a strong-voiced and scary Charon. Tenor Aaron Sheehan, tall and striking, sang Orpheus here and throughout with an attractive, tuneful voice and proper intensity. He really sounded different from other people, which is all the point. But even in this scene our focus on Orpheus’s drama and song was blurred by a constant gesturing and posturing in “authentic” Renaissance/Baroque manner, which seems an obsession of Stage Director Gilbert Blin and which pervaded the production, giving a certain St. Vitus Dance quality to what should come across more simply and directly. Most distracting was the presence of dancer Carlos Fittante wearing various demi-god masks and hovering and gesturing around the main characters as if inspiring them and interpreting them. Undoubtedly there were distracting effects in some Renaissance and Baroque stage productions, but Blin would do well to ponder Hamlet’s Advice to the Players. Another quibble: it was a strong idea to have the dead Eurydice draped by a white veil as she moves about in the Underworld, and then have the veil removed when she is restored to Orpheus. But when he loses her the second time, better to have had the veil put back and the girl spirited away. Instead, for the rest of the opera she lay on her back stage front and center, her peasant costume from Act I causing an unattractive bulge in her middle. Eurydice should seem, if anything, desirable.

Steven Stubbs led a well-paced and colorful performance, the BEMF ensemble under Concertmaster Mealy playing beautifully as usual. Dark Horse Consort again supplied the trombones and cornets, blazing out in the opening music to suggest Apollo, then returning to darken and color the atmosphere of the Underworld scenes. With Orpheus’s plea to Charon, rising and alternating cornets anticipate the Deposuit potentes of the Vespers—here the effect is not so much transcendent beauty as song struggling to rise out of darkness. All the cast sang well, all well suited to their roles. Besides Orpheus and Charon, standouts included soprano Mireille Asselin as a sweet-voiced Eurydice, doubling as the Spirit of Music to open and present the opera. Another great success was soprano Shannon Mercer as the Messenger, bringing the news early on of Eurydice’s death by snakebite, Mercer telling the tale with great conviction in her monologue that starts out dwelling on one repeated note in dark harmony, like Donna Anna’s story of rape and murder at the start of Don Giovanni, or Sieglinde’s gloomy narrative of her history in Act I of Die Walküre. Orfeo, the first great opera, is one of the greatest ever. The BEMF presentation, despite annoyances in the stage direction, has been an experience that struck deep and caused the work to stay in the mind.

Charles Warren

About Charles Warren

Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film
history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School.
He is the author of “T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare,” and edited and contributed to
the volumes “Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film” and “Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Hail Mary:’ Women and the Sacred in Film.”

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